The story behind one governor’s quest to transform Jekyll Island from fading millionaire’s retreat to public treasure
By Rebecca Burns
A century ago, Jekyll Island provided a winter escape for a handful of America’s wealthiest families, who valued its natural beauty, mild climate, and seclusion.
They built magnificent “cottages” and a grand, turreted clubhouse on a sliver of the island’s 5,700 acres, preserving the remainder for hunting, fishing, and outdoor pursuits. Today, a bike ride across Jekyll reveals remnants of that grandeur, some of it vividly restored, some in ruins—along with modest campgrounds, facilities devoted to public education, pristine new hotels and shops, and, still, vast swaths of untamed landscape. This idiosyncratic development mix stems from a twist of political fate that, in the middle of the twentieth century, imparted Jekyll with a legacy and mission unlike those of any other state-owned property.
At the dawn of the post–World War II economic boom, Georgia’s acting governor, Melvin Thompson, had a vision: Give people a reason to skip their Florida vacations and instead holiday on their state’s own coastline. The privations of war and the passing of generations had gutted membership of the Jekyll Island Club, once the province of Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Thompson proposed that the state acquire the island—including its storied clubhouse, swimming pool, a skeet shooting range, horseback riding trails, and golf courses—and transform it into a public park with amenities suited to all incomes.
But what seemed like a simple plan became a political “hot potato,” as one Atlanta Constitution columnist called it, and part of one of the strangest chapters in Georgia gubernatorial history. And while Thompson’s vision ultimately came to fruition, Jekyll’s transition from millionaires’ retreat to oasis for the people was far from smooth.
The Three-Governors Brouhaha
In late 1946, Thompson had just scored an unlikely victory in the lieutenant gubernatorial race when governor-elect Eugene Talmadge suddenly passed away. Georgia law offered no provision for what to do in this unusual case. Outgoing governor Ellis Arnall demanded the job remain his, while Thompson protested that as lieutenant, he should get the role. And Talmadge’s son, Herman, a popular write-in candidate, claimed the position as his own. State lawmakers awarded the job to Talmadge, but two months later the Supreme Court overrode them and appointed Thompson acting governor until the 1948 election.
It was under these tempestuous circumstances that Thompson, who also boosted teacher pay and expanded highways, floated his vision for Jekyll, which involved buying the island with funds from a teachers’ retirement account. Herman Talmadge said the scheme would benefit Thompson’s cronies while putting teachers at risk; Thompson claimed the investment would ultimately bolster state coffers. Talmadge also accused Thompson of making a sketchy deal with wealthy Northerners eager to get rid of a “white elephant.”
In fact, a handful of long-established members of the Jekyll Island Club opposed selling, either because they were attached to the island or because they hoped to negotiate a higher price. Undeterred, Thompson began condemning the club’s mostly empty—if well-kept—properties and eventually secured ownership of Jekyll through eminent domain. The price tag was $675,000, or about $6.7 million today. In his weekly radio talk following the inking of the deal, Thompson declared Jekyll “a playground that now belongs to every Georgian” and announced intentions to create gathering spaces for groups like the Girl Scouts, 4-H Club, and the YMCA, which he said would help curb juvenile delinquency.
A Golden Elephant
Prior to the purchase of Jekyll Island, only three miles of Georgia’s coastline belonged to the state; Jekyll added another nine. And it wasn’t just any coastline: The island’s unspoiled shores, grand maritime forest, and golden marshes brimmed with rare wildlife and poetic beauty. “You can realize what a beach like this will mean to the Georgian of average means,” Thompson told the Monroe Tribune in 1947.
Thompson’s tenure as governor ended with the 1948 election, and his rival and successor, Herman Talmadge, quickly moved to turn Jekyll from a state-run park to one owned by the state but leased to private developers and operators. Development proceeded in fits and starts, with only some of the promised amenities delivered and charges of cronyism rampant. In the 1954 gubernatorial race, candidate Marvin Griffin reinvoked the label “white elephant” and called for the island’s sale. State lawmakers quashed that plan, and a two-year burst of development followed, resulting in a new boardwalk, picnic areas, a convention center, and shopping. Jack Nelson, best known as a muckraking journalist with the Atlanta Constitution, visited in the summer of 1958 and declared the island a “golden elephant” on its way to being “the finest resort on the Atlantic.”
In March 1948, the island opened “with no ceremony but near-capacity crowds for its hotel, clubhouse, and cottages,” wrote the Atlanta Constitution’s Celestine Sibley. Hotel rooms started at $3 a night and cottage rentals at just $1.50, comparable to lodging at other state parks.
In 1950, the landmark Jekyll Island State Park Authority Act stipulated that the island would operate “as a State Park without expense to the State.” Jekyll Island, in other words, must pay for itself. To that end, the act established a five-member authority not only to serve as stewards of the land but also to run the island like a business, negotiating private leases and managing a budget.
In addition to requiring fiscal sustainability and economic inclusiveness, the 1950 act shielded Jekyll from overdevelopment with forward-thinking restrictions: Improvements were limited to one-third of the island’s elevated land, and building codes adhered to its historic character. The act also thwarted speculative landlords by prohibiting private individuals from leasing more than three parcels of property in its planned residential subdivision.
As vital as those restrictions proved in shaping the island’s identity, Jekyll was never envisioned as a wholly environmental sanctuary like its neighbor, the Cumberland Island National Seashore. As Willard Neal wrote in the Atlanta Constitution’s Sunday magazine in 1957: “What Jekyll needs most is a lot of visitors. And what the visitors will want are places to stay, places to eat and dance and play, and more facilities for enjoying the sea and the sands and the scenery. It will take time to establish a balance.”
A half-century later, the effort to achieve that balance continues. After sagging tourism in the 1990s, the Jekyll Island Authority recently capped off a ten-year, $209 million revitalization effort. Upgrades include a LEED-certified, oceanfront convention center; a new Westin Hotel; and the walkable Beach Village retail complex—all built within the footprint of old structures. At a rededication ceremony last fall, Governor Nathan Deal channeled his visionary predecessor in his remarks. “We have delivered on that promise of a public beach resort and a world-class vacation and meeting destination for everyone from every corner of Georgia to enjoy,” he said.
And while the Authority continues to support itself financially, Jekyll remains something of a governor’s legacy. In 2014, Deal allocated $17 million to fund a new youth and learning center, currently under construction, called Camp Jekyll. Modern pavilions and cabins are rising up in place of structures from the 1950s and ‘60s—calling to mind Governor Thompson’s triumphant radio remarks in 1947. Like the rest of Georgia, he said, Jekyll Island was “left to us as a heritage in trust for our children and their children’s children. It is never to be finished, but always to be improved.”
From the Stacks
The original appraisal filed in the Glynn County Superior Court—dated September 8, 1947—lists the value of Jekyll Island at $675,000, or about $6.7 million today. It was merely happenstance that the court’s clerk (named on the cover sheet) was Henry Francis DuBignon, a direct descendant of Christophe DuBignon, the preeminent owner of Jekyll Island in the years after the American Revolution. View this document in full at jekyllisland.com/stacks.
Not, at First, a Paradise for All
While Georgia politicians touted Jekyll as a populist retreat, the island operated under the same segregationist policies as the rest of the Jim Crow South. Black visitors were restricted to the St. Andrews Beach at the southern end of the island. When the Jekyll Island Authority built its grand glass-window-enclosed Aquarama for whites, the “separate but equal” offering for blacks was a small pool covered by a tin shed. Whites had a boardwalk and use of the old historic hotel, while blacks used the “Negro Beach House,” a smaller pavilion (later part of the 4-H Center).
Efforts to integrate Jekyll began in the late 1950s, ahead of some of the better-known demonstrations of the modern Civil Rights era. Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver vowed he would close all state parks rather than integrate. But in March 1963, the biracial Council on Human Relations threatened to sue. A few weeks later, twenty-five members of the NAACP attempted to integrate the island’s white-only facilities. Some ate at a lunch counter and used picnic tables, but others were denied access to Jekyll’s Aquarama, golf course, and three motels. Local police looked the other way, but by the following March, an NAACP group filed a discrimination suit. Secretary of State Ben Fortson, who then ran the Jekyll Island Authority, claimed no formal policy of segregation. “We just play it by ear on a day-to-day basis for what is best for the island,” he told a reporter. Eventually, an order by U.S. District Judge Frank Hooper led to Jekyll’s full integration in mid-1964.
A Jekyll Timeline
Believed to be called Ospo by Native Americans, the island is fertile ground for hunting, fishing, and shellfish gathering.
French explorers first arrive in the region.
General James Edward Oglethorpe named “Jekyl Island” (sic) in honor of Sir Joseph Jekyll, a politician and financial supporter of the Georgia colony.
British colonial trustees grant 500 acres on Jekyll to William Horton, who establishes the South’s first brewery on the island.
Privateer Christophe DuBignon buys the property. For close to a century, the DuBignon family lives on the island, growing cotton and promoting it as a hunting getaway.
Confederates occupy the island during the Civil War, abandoning it to Union forces in 1862.
A consortium of northern businessmen, among them J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Vanderbilt, buys the island from the DuBignons and creates the Jekyll Island Club, used mainly during winter.
The Georgia State Department of Parks acquires the island for $675,000.
Jekyll Island opens as a state park. Visitors can rent its cottages and facilities for the same cost as at other state parks.
The Jekyll Island Authority is created with a mandate to operate the island at no cost to the state while protecting it from overdevelopment.
The drawbridge to the island is completed. (Prior to this, visitors could only reach it by boat or plane.)
Jekyll is integrated through a court order.
The island’s historic district, once home to the Jekyll Island Club, gains National Historic Landmark District status.
The Club’s centerpiece clubhouse is renovated and reopens as a historic hotel.
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center opens.
The Hampton Inn opens, the first new hotel built on Jekyll in more than thirty years.
The new convention center opens.
Beach Village, Westin, and Holiday Inn Resort open as part of an island-wide redevelopment effort while additional historic structures are restored.